Workshop photoessay: first of the Carl Zeiss food photography masterclasses

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Last Saturday saw the first of the Carl Zeiss food photography masterclasses for this year, held at Hanare under chef Kenny Yew. The participants were mostly professionals from other genres of photography – weddings, pets, video, portraits. In attendance was also Philip Ong from Shriro, the Asia-Pacific representatives for Carl Zeiss, Profoto and Gitzo. I normally avoid using conventional flashes for this kind of work because of the heat; however, as the distances were small, and base ISO on a DSLR a lot higher than a MF camera, we had plenty of light to work with and the strobes were run at close to minimum power most of the time. The large softbox wasn’t much of a surprise, but served as a nice substitute for window light; more interesting was the little ProBox, which is a beamsplitter-cum-diffuser device that fits over the end of the head to provide a very even cube of light. I suppose it’s designed for product photography, but I can see it being useful for food as an alternative to my usual LED panels; it felt very intuitive to set up and use.

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What did surprise me was that all of the participants were shooting Micro Four Thirds – and not just that, all Olympus cameras! I was the only one working off a Nikon D800E and tripod. Good thing we had a F-M43 adaptor – not surprisingly, the 2/50 Makro-Planar and 2/28 Distagon work very well on the smaller format (I guess I should know, because I use them myself on the OM-D for food photography too).

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A good lunch was enjoyed by all – the menu included a number of seasonal specialities freshly-delivered from Japan the previous day, including ayu (river sweetfish), anago (conger eel), pumpkin and of course various kinds of sushi fish – apparently autumn is the best season for the firmer white fish such as yellowtail, as they’re just starting to put on the pre-winter fat.

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Note that I’m not in any of the shots because I was either shooting, demonstrating or talking…images from this set with a Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon, 2/50 Makro-Planar and 2/100 Makro-Planar with lighting by Profoto.

The next workshop will be on the 6th of October at Bistro a Table, SS14, Petaling Jaya. Please send me an emailif you would like more details or to reserve a place. There are also more details in this post.

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Sushi, and the philosophy of photography

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Seared Wagyu beef with momeji oroshii.

Sushi is a universe in itself – there are so few components that if you get any one of them slightly wrong, the taste will be horrible. But if you get every one of them right, the experience can be magical. Specifically, your fish must be fresh and in season; precisely the right amount of soy sauce should be brushed on to the top, with a little dab of wasabi hiding between the rice and the fish. The fish itself is cut slightly concave so it drapes perfectly over the rice, itself measured to precisely the right quantity to make a mouthful and shaped by hand, not too tightly packed and not too loose, either.

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Katsuo (bonito) with ginger.

And then there’s the seasoning that accompanies the rice – a mix of mirin and rice vinegar – which must offer the right degree of tartness and sweetness to provide a counterpoint to the fish and soy sauce, but not so much that it overpowers or tastes sour. And this is before we even talk about more complicated creations that involve multiple types of fish, or searing, or additional condiments and seasoning.

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Broiled anago (freshwater conger eel).

There’s a parallel between sushi and photography (and sushi and many other things, actually) – aside from the obvious that it’s art, sushi making requires both technical skill and creativity. There are constraints, but you can work around them. It can be learned, it can be honed by experience, but there’s definitely an element of talent and intuition involved which all great sushi chefs possess. Photographs and sushi both come in small, bite-sized increments – they require little time to create if all the elements come together, and can be enjoyed in moments or contemplated for hours – I’ve eaten sushi dinners with 20+ different varieties served over many hours; I suppose that would be like going through the Magnum annual. Neither photography nor sushi is cheap, either; and mastery can take years.

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Torigai clam.

There’s even an anticipative element to it – the feeling of curiosity before you go to eat (wondering what is in season and came from Tsukiji today) is much like the feeling I get before a shoot; you’re all excited and ready to go. It’s also entirely possible that it’s just me.

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Seared katsuo

The best sushi I’ve ever eaten – so far – comes from a local chef in Kuala Lumpur at a restaurant called Hanare; Kenny Yew is an absolute genius when it comes to creating new things – for instance, seared wagyu with momeji oroshii chili – as a sushi. I need to go at least once a month or I get withdrawal symptoms and the DTs, because I just can’t eat sushi anywhere else now. The few lucky friends I’ve taken there feel the same way. It really is art – some of the pieces make me tingly and others nearly bring me to tears. I’ve eaten things there I never would have though edible, let alone ordered – and loved them. That’s much like how certain exhibitions, art or equipment inspire me to try photographic experiments that work out a lot better than expected.

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Seared hama-tai (sea bream)

And best of all, you can mix the two. The lighting conditions at that restaurant are pretty horrible, but they save me a seat at the counter which happens to have a halogen spot over it; I position my sushi carefully to be well-lit. This set might appear the same, but that’s because I wanted a consistent point of view; (and comparison)
they were also shot during the same meal. I discovered one other thing that night: the best color I’ve yet managed to achieve is delivered by a combination of Zeiss glass and Olympus cameras.

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Oo-toro. (Fatty yellowfin tuna belly)

I had the ZF.2 2/28 Distagon on the Pen Mini via an adaptor, and was utterly floored by the color when I opened up the raw files on my computer – the sushi literally looked like it had in real life. Every bit of the color, texture, iridescence and freshness was captured. I’m guessing it’s a combination of the fortuitous lighting, the great color and micro contrast of Zeiss lenses in general, and the pleasing color palette of Olympus cameras. Whatever it is, I think I’ve found my perfect sushi-camera.

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Red snapper.

My parting advice is that if you do get a chance to eat sushi made by a master, do as you would do at an exhibition of photographs by a great photographer: put away your preconceptions, go in with an open mind, and enjoy. You’ll probably be surprised. MT

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Kamburi (giant yellowtail).